Saturday, 31 March 2018

No goal by Raiders’ Fonstad a tough hockey call

A bump by Max Martin (#10) into goalie Brody Willms created debate.
    It was one of those plays that could create great debate in a referees teaching seminar let alone among fans.
    With the dust settled, referees Jeff Ingram and Colin Watt along with linesmen Tarrington Wyonzek and Ethan Cronkhite should receive high marks for how they handled the no goal situation involving a disallowed tally by Prince Albert Raiders right-winger Cole Fonstad on Wednesday night.
    For a quick review, the Raiders were hosting the Moose Jaw Warriors in Game 4 of a best-of-seven WHL first round series before 2,827 spectators at the Art Hauser Centre in Prince Albert. With the Warriors holding a 1-0 lead, Raiders captain Curtis Miske broke down the right wing and fired a shot on Warriors netminder Brody Willms.
    The shot rebounded long off Willms to the left side of the Moose Jaw goal. Fonstad pounced on the loose puck and fired home what appeared to be the equalizer to tie things up a 1-1 at the 10:24 mark of the frame. The official behind the net immediately waved the goal off.
Cole Fonstad saw his Game 4 be disallowed.
    After a long conference at the penalty box area, Fonstad’s goal was disallowed as it was ruled Raiders defenceman Max Martin made incidental contact with Willms.
    The Warriors later scored into an empty net with 15.6 seconds remaining in the third to seal a 2-0 victory and take a 3-1 lead in the series. They will try to close out the set tonight at 7 p.m. at Mosaic Place in Moose Jaw.
    In the aftermath of Game 4, the big controversy surrounded the fact that Fonstad’s third period goal was disallowed.
    The officials handled the situation properly. The referee behind the net emphatically made a signal that the goal was no good.
    With the play brought to a stop, the officials had a conference to go over what happened. As the call to take away the goal was an incidental contact call on Martin, the officials by rule weren’t able to use the assistance of replay in that situation, so unless another official on the ice can definitively say the call should be overturned, the original call has to stand.
    In viewing the replay, Martin’s contact with Willms happened outside the crease, but Willms still had his right foot just barely in the blue paint of the crease. In WHL games I have seen this season, the trend has been for officials to call no goal due to incidental contact in those situations, so the officials stayed consistent with how that situation had been called all season.
    On the replays, it looked like Warriors Russian import defenceman Dmitri Zaitsev was trying to force Martin away from the Moose Jaw goal and ended up guided the Raiders rearguard into Willms. Under that situation, Fonstad’s goal should count.
Goalie Brody Willms was bumped in Game 4.
    In seeing the play develop once at full speed, it is uncertain how much of Zaitsev’s actions the officials saw, and if they did see them, it is possible they could rule there was enough time for Martin to recover and avoid the goalie.
    It should be noted Martin tapped into Willms, so the contact wasn’t malicious by any means.
    Having seen the play live and checked out available replays, that call could have gone either way by being ruled no goal or a goal. I am fine with whatever way the officials called it.
    It was a tough hockey call.
    Unfortunately for the Raiders and their supporters, the tough call went against their team.
    To the Raiders credit, they didn’t allow that call to deflate them. Over the final 9:36 of the third, they played hard and created good scoring chances but couldn’t find the equalizer.
    The hard pill to swallow on the Raiders side was that they likely deserved a better result in that game and likely deserve better than to be down 3-1 in that series.
    The Raiders handled the post-game scrums well. Head coach Marc Habscheid and Martin said they disagreed with the officials’ judgment on the no goal. Habscheid express concerns about critical breaks with calls that didn’t go his club’s way in each of the previous two games.
    The comments were made in a respectable fashion and were honest.
Defenceman Max Martin was on the unfortunate wrong end of a tough call.
    The Warriors had to be credited with how well they handled the post-game media scrums as well. Moose Jaw head coach Tim Hunter said it was a disallowed goal, and with how fast the officials made their initial call, that was all Hunter really needed to say.
    Willms said the contact impeded him from getting across the crease, and he gave an honest answer.
    Overall, Moose Jaw has to be credited with finding a way to get a 3-1 edge in the series.
    The media present at that contest handled the whole situation surrounding Fonstad’s disallowed goal well.
    The Raiders fans that disagreed with the call showed their disagreement in a respectable fashion on social media after the game. They unleashed loud boos when the call was made in the third period, but no one did anything over the line crazy. The Raiders fans handled things well.
The Warriors are in position to win their playoff series with the Raiders.
    At the NHL level, there has been talk of dissatisfaction with how the whole concept of goalie interference has been dealt with this season.
    It is highly likely the whole rule will be revisited and debated at various league meetings in the NHL and WHL in the off-season.
    For now, the call to disallow Fonstad’s goal was just a tough call.
    It was nice to see all parties including the officials, the Raiders, the Warriors, the media and the fans treat that situation respectfully.

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Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Warriors becoming playoff tough in battle with Raiders

Warriors winger Tate Popple (#18) withstands punishment in front of the net.
    PRINCE ALBERT, Sask. - Getting the Prince Albert Raiders in the first round of the WHL playoffs was supposed to be a nightmare for the Moose Jaw Warriors.
    In actuality, that matchup is turning out to be what the Warriors might need.
    After finishing first in the entire WHL with a 52-15-2-3 record, the Warriors didn’t get rewarded by drawing what would typically be a weaker club in the first round of the playoffs. Due to a format where clubs play through their division, the Warriors were forced to face the Raiders, who posted a 32-27-9-4 mark during the regular season, in a best-of-seven first round series.
    The East Division that both teams play out of was viewed this season as one of the toughest divisions the league had seen in some time.
Justin Almeida cuts up ice for the Warriors.
    With the Warriors having only won one post-season series over the previous five years, a date with the hard-hitting and skilled Raiders might be the thing that prepares the Warriors for the rest of the post-season as they move into position to potentially advance to the second round.
    On Wednesday before 2,827 spectators at the Art Hauser Centre, the Warriors claimed a classic gritty playoff contest 2-0 over the host Raiders in Game 4 of their first round series. The win gives the Warriors a 3-1 lead in the set.
    The Warriors will try to close out the series in Game 5 on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Mosaic Place in Moose Jaw.
Winger Brayden Burke sets up in the offensive zone for the Warriors.
    In the first period of Wednesday’s clash, the Raiders came out playing in their classic style throwing a number of hits. Raiders defenceman Brayden Pachal and right-winger Carson Miller both nailed Moose Jaw left-winger Ryan Peckford with big hits. Peckford seemed to be on the receiving end of big hits at various times during the night.
    Due to the fact the Warriors have a lot of speed and skill this season, they will continually face teams in the post-season that will try to make them back down by increasing the physical intensity. The key for Moose Jaw to counter this is to play through this type of attention and not do anything dumb in the retaliation department to draw a penalty.
    Early in the second, Pachal, who stands 6-feet and weighs 195 pounds, leveled Warriors overage centre and 70-goal man Jayden Halbgewachs, who stands 5-foot-8 and weighs 165 pounds, with a high hit. The collision didn’t stop Halbgewachs, who topped the WHL in regular season scoring, from driving hard to the net.
Raiders winger Cole Fonstad had a goal called back.
    The odd time, the Warriors did lose their cool. In the second period, 17-year-old defenceman Jett Woo was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct for knocking the stick out of the hands of Raiders rookie left-winger Justin Nachbaur.
    Those lapses were few and far between as Moose Jaw played with great composure for most of the night.
    The Warriors were finally rewarded for their resilience with 3:57 to play in the second period. Centre Justin Almeida streaked down centre towards the Prince Albert net, took a pass from a teammate at the right side boards and fired home is second goal of the post-season to give the visitors a 1-0 edge.
    Defenceman Josh Brook and right-winger Brayden Burke picked up assists on the tally.
    The Raiders continued their physical play with defenceman Zack Hayes nailing Burke and Raiders centre Sean Montgomery nailing Peckford, who came up favouring his right shoulder but stayed in the game.
Jayden Halbgewachs, left, zips down the wing for the Warriors.
    After two periods, the play between the two sides was fairly even with the Raiders holding a 21-17 edge in shots on goal.
    The hosts pushed hard for the equalizer in the third, but Warriors netminder Brody Willms stood tall. He ultimately made 32 saves to earn his first career WHL post-season shutout.
    The Raiders thought they had the equalizer at the 10:24 mark of the third, when right-winger Cole Fonstad fired home a long rebound at the left side of the Moose Jaw goal. The officials had a lengthy conference and ruled Raiders defenceman Max Martin made incidental contact with Willms and disallowed the goal.
Raiders C Jordy Stallard (#19) chases a loose puck after a draw.
    The fans in attendance voiced their displeasure over the call.
    Fonstad created a tonne of offensive chances for the host all game.
    With 80 seconds to play, the Raiders pulled netminder Ian Scott for an extra attacker, but Prince Albert couldn’t final the equalizer. With 15.6 seconds remaining on the clock, Brook sent Burke into the clear on a breakaway towards the empty Prince Albert net, and Burke sealed with win with an empty-net tally.
    Scott turned away 20-of-21 shots to take the setback in goal for the Raiders.
    The Raiders with their physical play had the potential to wear down the Warriors over a long series.
Warriors D Josh Brook and G Brody Willms celebrate their team’s win.
    Now the Warriors have a chance to close out a series against a tough opponent that is playing hard, playing to win and believes they can win.
    If the Warriors can win at home on Saturday, that would set them up nicely for the second round.

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Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Champs again! - Stars capture third SFMAAAHL title with sweep

Stars captain Mackenna Parker, right, raises the Fedoruk Cup.
    The Saskatoon Stars weren’t going to be denied in their quest to recapture the Fedoruk Cup.
    A year ago, the Stars were swept away 3-0 by the Prince Albert Northern Bears in the best-of-five Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League Championships Series, which the Stars had won in 2015 and 2016. This year, the Stars returned the favour.
    On Tuesday night at the Agriplace Arena, the Stars scored twice late in the first period of Game 3 of the SFMAAAHL title series to erase an early 1-0 deficit to take a 2-1 lead on the Bears. 
    Saskatoon held on over the next two frames to cement that 2-1 score as the final outcome for Game 3 to sweep the series 3-0 to claim the SFMAAAHL championship banner and the Fedoruk Cup.
The Stars celebrate winning the SFMAAAHL title and the Fedoruk Cup.
    “It feels amazing,” said Stars captain Mackenna Parker. “I have been waiting for it for two years now.
    “Finally, we came together and did it. It is so exciting.”
    For a lengthy stretch of the opening frame, it appeared the Bears were going to force the series to go to a Game 4. They took a 1-0 lead on a well-executed power-play goal at the 5:25 mark of the first.
    Bears physical defender Jordan Ashe passed the puck from the point down to the Jadyn Kushniruk at the right side of the Saskatoon goal. Kushniruk passed the puck across front of the Saskatoon net to skilled centre Kate Ball, who tucked home the opening tally of the contest.
Kate Ball scored to give the Bears an early lead.
    Stars netminder Arden Kliewer had to make a number of big stops to keep the Bears from extending their advantage, which included turning away Ball on a backdoor opportunity later in the frame.
    With 2:58 remaining in the first, Stars forward Kaitlin Jockims took a pass from Anna Leschyshyn to pot the equalizer to tie things up at 1-1.
    Parker proceeded to net the series winner with 12.5 seconds to play in the first period, when she swooped across the front of the Prince Albert goal and tucked home a backhand shot between the legs of Bears netminder Ryan Fontaine. Leschyshyn picked up an assist on that tally as well.
    “I didn’t know if it was going to go through or not, but it did,” said Parker. “It just ended up going five-hole.”
    After 20 minutes, the shots on goal were even at 14-14 thanks to the Stars push in the final three minutes of the frame. Stars head coach Greg Slobodzian said the two goals his side scored at the end of the first was the turning point of Game 3.
Kaitlin Jockims had the equalizer for the Stars on Tuesday night.
    “P.A. came out hard,” said Slobodzian. “We knew they were going to come out hard. You have a team like that which plays hard all the time and then you back them into a corner, they really sent it.
    “We weathered the storm. As soon as we scored those two goals, I was like to play that hard and come out down one goal that is sort of disheartening. They continued to push for sure, but they didn’t have the same jump that they had.”
    The Stars carried play for much of the second period outshooting the Bears 13-5. Netminder Ryan Fontaine made a number of big saves for the Bears to ensure the Stars didn’t get any further ahead on the scoreboard.
    In the third, Bears captain Hannah Koroll likely had the best chance to net the equalizer for her side firing a hard mid-range drive on goal in the second half of the frame, but Kliewer turned away the shot. Outside of Koroll’s opportunity, Saskatoon clamped things down defensively to close out the victory.
Captain Mackenna Parker celebrates her series winning goal for the Stars.
    “It is awesome,” said Jockims of the win. “It is a great feeling to share with all my friends and family.”
    Kliewer made 25 stops to pick up the win in goal for the Stars. Fontaine turned away 33 shots to take the setback in the Bears net.
    In Game 2 in Prince Albert on Sunday, Kliewer had a huge outing turning away 30 shots to back the Stars to a 4-2 win. After experiencing what it was like to be swept out of the SFMAAAHL title series a year ago by the Bears in her rookie campaign with the Stars, Kliewer was pumped to be on the winning side this time around as second-year player.
    “It feels great to comeback this year and sweep them the same as they did to us last year,” said Kliewer. “It is an amazing feeling.”
Goalie Ryan Fontaine makes one of her 33 saves for the Bears.
    As for her play in net, Kliewer said she was riding a good vibe.
    “I was just feeling the puck having a good game,” said Kliewer. “I had a good team in front of me. I was just feeling it.”
    Tuesday’s victory marked the third time in four years the Stars captured the SFMAAAHL championship. Parker along with forwards Kianna Dietz, Jordyn Gerlitz and Jordyn Holmes played for the Stars in all three league championship seasons.
    This year’s league championship series had been pegged as another big showdown as the Stars finished first in the SFMAAAHL regular season with a 24-3-1 record, while the Bears were second with a 22-5-1 mark.
Goalie Arden Kliewer makes one of her 25 stops in goal for the Stars.
    Slobodzian said the run by his team has been a remarkable one.
    “I’ve always said I have been blessed with really, really good athletes who are eager to get better and want to play the right way,” said Slobodzian. “These are the outcomes that you get.
    “I’m just happy for them. We work those girls so hard in practice, and they are so committed in their dryland. To get rewarded for all that work, it means a lot.”
    The Stars now advance to play in a best-of-three female midget AAA Western regional playdown series versus the Manitoba female midget AAA champion.
Jordyn Holmes, left, and Jordyn Gerlitz enjoy the Fedoruk Cup.
    The best-of-five Manitoba championship series is still going on as the Eastman Selects, who are based in Ste. Anne, have a 2-1 edge in the set on the defending champion Pembina Valley Hawks, who are based in Morden. The latest that series is slated to go on is Friday.
    The winner of the Manitoba championship series will host the Stars for the entire Wester regional playdown series.
    “Everyone on this team gets along so well,” said Jockims. “It is just awesome to have a couple of more weeks together.”
    The club that takes the playdown series advances to the Esso Cup national female midget AAA championship tournament, which runs April 22 to 28 in Bridgewater, N.S.
The Stars celebrate their third SFMAAAHL title in four years.
    Parker, Dietz, Gerlitz and Holmes are all playing out their final campaign of midget AAA eligibility along with defender Dana Wood and netminder Jordan Ivanco. The Stars captain was happy that her team’s season will continue in April.
    “I don’t have to worry about hockey being done,” said Parker. “We can just keep going.
    “I don’t want leave that great group of girls that we have here.”

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Monday, 26 March 2018

Willoughby raised the bar for Huskies women’s hockey

Kaitlin Willoughby, centre, celebrates a goal with her teammates.
    When Kaitlin Willoughby arrived on the University of Saskatchewan campus, no one could have seen the profound impact she would have on the Huskies women’s hockey team.
    The star forward wasn’t an out of nowhere story, but she wasn’t expected to be a difference maker that could will her team to victory.
    Arriving on campus in late summer of 2013, she came to the Huskies with the reputation of being a solid player netting 34 goals and 63 assists in 96 career regular season games over five seasons with Prince Albert Northern Bears from 2008 to 2013 in the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League. Originally from Canwood, Sask., her family relocated to Prince Albert when her father, Jeff, became the Bears head coach before the start of the 2011-12 campaign.
Kaitlin Willoughby made a profound impact with the Huskies.
    Before her family moved, Kaitlin lived with relatives in Prince Albert when she played for the Bears.
    While she was a good player and finished with the Bears as their captain, Willoughby skated in an era of the SFMAAAHL when players like Emily Clark, who is now on Canada’s senior national women’s team, and Olivia Howe were putting up insane point totals.
    Willoughby recorded 10 goals and 23 assists in 28 regular season games during her final season with the Bears in 2012-13 to be the team’s second leading scorer after Kelly Regnier, who had 23 goals and 19 assists in 27 regular season games.
    Upon joining the Huskies, Willoughby would be suiting up with the teammates that piled up points just as or more prolifically than she did in midget AAA. At the university level, players that were once prolific scorers most often take on new roles like being a defensive forward to help their new club.
Kaitlin Willoughby could score goals and lift her teammates.
    The Huskies had only won one playoff series before Willoughby arrived, which allowed the program to qualify for U Sports nationals back in 2004. Before the start of the 2001-02 campaign, post-season tournaments were often used at some stage of the playoffs to help determine a champion in the Canada West Conference.
    The supremely talented Breanne George played five seasons for the Huskies at forward from 2007 to 2012 becoming the team’s all-time leading scorer piling up 86 goals and 63 assists in 107 regular season games, and she experienced just one single playoff game win in five trips to the post-season.
    George is still the most decorated player when it comes to individual awards won by a member of the Huskies women’s hockey team.
Kaitlin Willoughby (#28) breaks away from a defender in her second season.
    Willoughby got to experience four playoff series wins, a Canada West championship win in her rookie campaign in 2013-14, a bronze medal finish at U Sports nationals that same season, and another appearance in the Canada West championship series and a second trip to nationals this past season.
    During Willoughby’s time with the team, the Huskies finished second twice in the Canada West regular season standings in 2013-14 and this past season. Until Willoughby arrived at the U of S, the highest the Huskies finished in the Canada West regular season standings was third on a number of occasions.
Kaitlin Willoughby (#28) enjoy the Huskies Canada West title win in 2014.
    As a rookie, she was placed on a line with ultra-talented fifth-year captain Cami Wooster and took off right away. Willoughby piled up 25 points playing all of the Huskies 28 regular season games, while Wooster led the team in scoring with 31 points.
    In that campaign’s post-season, Willoughby had her signature moment, which is still the biggest moment to this day for the Huskies women’s team.
    In a series deciding Game 3 of the Canada West championship finals, she slipped home a mid-range shot from the left boards at the 5:09 mark of a second overtime period to deliver the Huskies to a 2-1 victory over the University of Regina Cougars at the ancient Rutherford Rink.
Kaitlin Willoughby shows off her speed in her second year.
    With the Huskies set to move to the brand new Merlis Belsher Place part way through next season, Willoughby’s tally to win the team’s first Canada West title will go down as the biggest goal scored in the history of the Huskies women’s hockey program at Rutherford.
    While Willoughby had a spectacular first campaign, the most telling part about how good she really was came from the fact she kept putting up points over the next four seasons after Wooster graduated. Willoughby finished as the second all-time leading scorer in the history of the Huskies women’s program with 111 points. She continued to have big moments in the playoffs and in key regular season games.
    She very quickly became targeted by opponents when Wooster was no long by her side. Night after night, Willoughby faced the best defensive players the Huskies opponents sent at her.
Kaitlin Willoughby circles in the offensive zone in her third year.
    Opponents would often give her unwanted extra attention in an attempt to get her off her game by giving her a shot after the whistle often with a hack on the wrist. She received the odd punches to the head and a few attempts to put her to the ground with a hit. Willoughby often gave up size in these encounters as her 5-foot-6 frame faced players that were 5-foot-11 or 6-feet tall.
    Over her last four seasons, the Huskies weren’t able to find a player to place on Willoughby’s line who was at her level. It seemed a different player would rotate on Willoughby’s line year after year and have a career season because she was Willoughby’s linemate.
    As a result, the extra attention from opponents on Willoughby increased.
Kaitlin Willoughby (#17) celebrates a playoff hat trick in 2016.
    She learned how to fight through the extra attention, and that only seemed to drive her more and make her battle harder. Willoughby kept improving rapidly year after year earning her the chance to skate in Hockey Canada women’s camps in the summers of 2016 and 2017, and she helped Canada’s women’s hockey team win silver at the FISU Winter Universiade in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in February of 2017.
    Most of her peers that scored prolifically in midget AAA never got close to matching the offensive totals Willoughby put up with the Huskies at the university level.
    Her maturity grew by light years at the U of S as well. When she arrived on campus at age 18, it felt like she was still really young, and she definitely projected being younger than her age.
Kaitlin Willoughby drives home a playoff hat trick goal in 2017.
    As she turns 23 today, it feels like she was a lot older on the maturity front than her age in years.
    During her fourth season, I felt from my side there were times we weren’t always on the best terms, which is something that happens in life. Still, she is the perfect lead by example leader, which is a leadership style I always responded well to.
    I felt moved to do as well as in reporting her exploits as she played on the ice, but I always came up short. I ensured the effort was always there, because something in my gut told me I had to do that.
Kaitlin Willoughby starts a rush to score a playoff series winner in 2017.
    By her own admission, Willoughby said she wasn’t strongest on the academic front in her first two years at U of S, but she found a way to improve enough in that area to become a U Sports academic all-Canadian and crack into the school’s nursing program.
    Willoughby became the team’s captain in her final season, and performed so well in that role you started to believe she should have been given that responsibility earlier in her career. The Huskies had a togetherness this season that was a step above the three previous seasons.
    It was due to Willoughby knowing how to inspire the rookies that were in awe of every move she made to the fifth years she had been friends with for a lengthy period of time.
Kaitlin Willoughby (#17) walka to the ice for a game in her last season.
    When the Huskies defeated the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds 2-1 on Feb. 24 to sweep a best-of-three Canada West semifinal series, Willoughby was penalized for roughing with 35 seconds to play in the third period after getting mixed up with a Thunderbirds player who hit Huskies star netminder Jessica Vance. 
    Had the Thunderbirds tied the contest on that power play and rallied to win that game, Willoughby was ready to take the fall for her team, even though she did the right thing in coming to the aid of her goalie.
    The fact she was ready to sacrifice herself and shoulder all the blame in a tough moment for the team makes her a leader you rally behind and sacrifice yourself for.
Kaitlin Willoughby (#17) played beside sister Morgan (#9) for three seasons.
    “I don’t think I’ve had a harder time in hockey,” said Willoughby following that contest. “I was almost in tears in the penalty box.
    “I had belief in my team. I knew they were going to get it done. My bad in taking that penalty.
    “I was just sticking up for my goaltender. It is too bad that they had to call a penalty. Thank God for my team there. They stuck with it and battled it out.”
    To add an extra side bonus to everything, Willoughby got to play with her younger sister and sound defensive defender, Morgan, during her final three seasons with the Huskies.
    For the local girls playing minor hockey in city and everyone back in Canwood and Prince Albert, Kaitlin Willoughby is a hero.
    She is a hero you can go and see, because she played close to home. In playing for the Huskies, Willoughby proved how valuable it can be when a star player plays close to home.
Kaitlin Willoughby makes a rush up ice in her final playoff home game.
    During her final season, she found a way to juggle being the Huskies star player and captain, her studies in an intense nursing program and a romantic relationship. A lot of others have cracked and failed following a similar path, but Willoughby is one of the few that has the make up to be able to succeed. Most can’t do what she has done.
    On a sports front, we might not ever see Willoughby at her best as most athletes hit their physical prime around age 27.
    She plans to spend the next year at U of S finishing her nursing, which is the smart move.
    When she gets her nursing degree, she guarantees she will always have a job wherever she wants to live.
The Willoughby family pictured at the Rutherford Rink.
    Willoughby is part of the top one per cent of female players in Canada and could contend to be on the senior national team. There are younger players that are further ahead to accomplishing that, but it is something Willoughby has the ability to do.
    With that said, the reality is you can do everything right in your power to make the senior national team and still not make it. That program cuts a lot of outstanding players and the margin between making the team and being cut is super slim.
    In life after hockey, Willoughby will be a success. Like her hockey career, it seems she is destined to make good things happen.

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Sunday, 25 March 2018

Fiala, Jockims surge Stars to Game 2 win over Bears

Saskatoon takes 2-0 lead of SFMAAAHL title series

Joelle Fiala celebrates her game winner for the Stars.
    PRINCE ALBERT, Sask. - Joelle Fiala and Kaitlin Jockims drove home two big blows to knock the Prince Albert Northern Bears on the ropes.
    On Sunday night at the Art Hauser Centre in Prince Albert, it appeared overtime was on tap for Game 2 of the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League Championship series. With 5:40 to play in the third period, Bears star forward Abby Soyko zipped into the Saskatoon zone on the left wing to get in alone on a breakaway and scored on a coast-to-coast rush to lock the Bears in a 2-2 tie with the visiting Saskatoon Stars.
    Just 17 seconds later, the Stars responded when defender Abby DeCorby found Fiala in the low right slot, and Fiala drove home a shot to the top right corner short side on Bears goaltender Ryan Fontaine to give the Stars a 3-2 lead.
    Building off the momentum from Fiala’s goal, the Stars went up by two goals just 2:10 later when forward Kaitlin Jockims was sprung on a breakaway, and she popped home a tally to the left corner of the Prince Albert goal.
Stars F Joelle Fiala, left, battles Bears D Jordan Ashe for the puck.
    Those markers proved to be the difference as the Stars took the contest 4-2 and a 2-0 commanding lead in the best-of-five series against the Bears, who are the defending SFMAAAHL champions. Saskatoon will try to close things out at home in Game 3 on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Agriplace Arena and win their third league title in four years in the process.
    “It was exciting to get another goal since they just scored,” said Fiala about her game winner. “I think it was pretty big whether it was me or anyone else scoring.
    “We needed another goal just to get up a little bit since they just scored.”
    Jockims was pumped to add the insurance tally.
Kaitlin Jockims had a key insurance goal for the Stars.
    “I just kind of went to the net and shot it,” said Jockims. “It kind of put the game away, and the team felt more secure.
    “I thought we showed what kind of team we were. They kept scoring, and we kept scoring right after like keeping the momentum in like our favour.”
    The Stars ability to respond quickly after the Bears scores proved to be the difference in Sunday’s clash.
    The Bears opened the scoring when captain Hannah Koroll fired home a shot from the point through a screen to give her side a 1-0 lead with 4:54 to play in the first period. At that point in the contest, the Bears were controlling play having just worked on two straight power plays.
    Momentum changed with 1:22 to play in the opening frame, when Stars captain and SFMAAAHL regular season scoring leader Mackenna Parker netted a goal from close in to force a 1-1 tie. Just 37 seconds after her goal, the Stars took a 2-1 advantage, when the rebound of a point shot from defender Ashley Messier was knocked home by standout centre Grace Shirley at the left side of the Prince Albert goal.
    Bears head coach Jeff Willoughby pointed towards those two Stars tallies as being a big turning point in the contest.
Abby Soyko had the third period equalizer for the Bears.
    “The biggest key I think was the first period maybe,” said Willoughby. “They had two late goals in the first.
    “If we could have been 1-0 or even tied going into two, it is a different ball game.”
    The Bears had a big chance to force a tie in the second, when forward Haley Kicia tried to knock home a puck Stars netminder Arden Kliewer was having trouble controlling. Kliewer finally froze the puck to stop play and ultimately made 30 saves to pick up the win in goal for the Stars.
    Fontaine turned away 19 shots to take the setback in goal for the Bears.
    “As a team, I think we played hard,” said Fiala. “We pushed back.
    “P.A. played really well. They always give us a hard game. We maybe didn’t play our best, but that goes to show you how much better we can be.”
    With the Bears having the edge in scoring chances on Sunday, Willoughby said it was tough to see Game 2 slip away.
    “It is hard pill to swallow obviously,” said Willoughby. “The task of winning three games in a row seems like it is a hard thing to do too.
Stars goalie Arden Kliewer gathers in a loose puck in traffic.
    “You just have to look at it as one game at a time and one period at a time, and you break it down to one shift at a time and that is the only way you can look at it. If you look at it winning three games, it is too much to concentrate on.
    “That was the message we gave the girls. We just told them it happened in 2009 when the Bears won the league.”
    When the Bears won their first league title in team history in 2009, they dropped the first two games of the best-of-five title series to the Swift Current Diamond Energy Wildcats before winning three straight to take the series 3-2.
    The Stars would like to flip the script from last season, when they were swept away by the Bears in the SFMAAAHL finals 3-0. Fiala said her team is aiming to finish things off in Game 3.
The Stars celebrate their Game 2 victory over the Bears.
    “We definitely want our broom back,” said Fiala. “We’re not going to play to lose.”

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Saturday, 24 March 2018

Rush rally falls short against Knighthawks in NLL clash

Rochester prevails 13-10 over Saskatchewan

Cody Jamieson (#88) fires a pass to a Knighthawks teammate.
    In the face of defeat, Saskatchewan Rush captain Chris Corbeil didn’t lose his sense of humour.
    Following the Rush’s 13-10 setback to the Rochester Knighthawks on Saturday night at the SaskTel Centre, Corbeil emerged from the dressing room for a post-game scrum and joked with the throng of assembled local media that the team must have lost, because he was needed. 
    The Oakville, Ont.,  product gave a few lighthearted jabs that the media always request the guys that are the big goal scorers, when the Rush win, which is what the National Lacrosse League franchise has done a lot of in about the past nine years dating back to its time in Edmonton.
    When the Rush lose, Corbeil noted with a sly smile he has to come and speak his mind.
    Even with Saturday’s defeat, the Rush still sit first overall in the Western Division and the entire NLL with an 11-3 record. When the laughter died down and Corbeil became serious, he said he was disappointed with what transpired on Saturday before 14,811 spectators.
Knighthawks F Joe Resetarits, right, eludes Rush captain Chris Corbeil.
    His club dropped both encounters with the Knighthawks this season including a 16-11 setback in Rochester back on Feb. 17.
    “We watched what they did in previous weeks and had success against us in the past, and we knew what to expect,” said Corbeil. “That is what they did.
    “We game planned for them. We dropped the ball entirely. They were scoring goals the way we knew they would try to, and they were playing defence the way we expected them to.
    “Our defence, there is no excuse. We knew what they were going to do, and they did it to us. We dropped the ball.”
Knighthawks F Austin Shanks, left, fakes out Rush T Adrian Sorichetti.
    The Knighthawks jumped out to an early 3-0 lead and held a 7-5 edge at halftime. At the 2:48 mark of the fourth quarter, the visitors’ edge grew to 11-6.
    Rush head coach and general manager Derek Keenan said his squad wasn’t strong enough defensively on Saturday.
    “We didn’t play our game on the back end, and we gave them way too many quality chances,” said Keenan. “We just didn’t play hard enough at times. We didn’t play consistent enough at times.”
    The Rush stormed back with a four-goal surge capped by a snipe from forward Robert Church to cut the Knighthawks lead to 11-10 with 4:46 to play in the fourth quarter. Church led the Rush in scoring with four goals and two assists.
    With 3:25 to play in the fourth quarter, the Rush took a bad substitution penalty for too many men. On the ensuing power play, forward Cory Vitarelli scored to put the Knighthawks up 12-10 with 2:51 to play in the fourth quarter.
The Original 16 Crush Dance Team performs on Saturday night.
    Rochester forward Austin Shanks scored into an empty-net with under a minute to play in the fourth quarter to round out the win for the visitors. The empty-net tally was the fifth goal of the night for Shanks.
    “I thought to be honest we did a good job with a late comeback and kind of pushed things,” said Corbeil. “Too many men at the end there obviously was a bit of a back breaker.
    “We should be able to play in all situations with the lead, from behind. To be quite frank, we haven’t done a great job playing with a lead or playing from behind is now evident.
    “This team has to figure out. We are on top of the division and on top of the league right now, but we’re not playing our best lacrosse and there are only four games left.”
The SaskTel Centre crowd gets into the Rush comeback attempt.
    Ben McIntosh scored twice for the Rush, while Jeff Shattler, Corbeil, Mark Matthews and Ryan Keenan all picked up singles.
    Joe Resetarits had two goals and five assists to lead the Knighthawks in scoring. Eric Fannell had a hat trick for Rochester, while Kyle Jackson and Scott Campbell had singles. Cody Jamieson collected five assists for the Knighthawks.
    Evan Kirk stopped 40-of-52 shots to take the setback in goal for the Rush.
    Matt Vinc made 43 saves to pick up the win in goal for the Knighthawks. Rochester improved to 7-7 to stay a half-game behind the Toronto Rock (7-7) for first place in the Eastern Division.
    “They did a good job of keeping us out of the middle I thought,” said Derek Keenan. “At times when we did get good looks, (Matt) Vinc was really good.
Goalie Matt Vinc makes one of his 43 saves for the Knighthawks.
    “He made some spectacular saves tonight. We didn’t have enough. We were flat I thought at the start for some reason.”
    The Rush now head on their bye week, and they return to action on April 7, when they host the Colorado Mammoth at 7:30 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre.
    They have advanced to the last three straight NLL finals and would like to extend that run to four straight this season.
    The Rush won the 2015 NLL title in Edmonton and the 2016 NLL championship in Saskatchewan.
    They were swept in last year’s best-of-three NLL championship series 2-0 by the Georgia Swarm.
    The Rush play three of their final four regular season games at home.
Robert Church, left, scored four goals for the Rush on Saturday.
    Corbeil believes the week off will help his team, who lead the Colorado Mammoth (9-4) by one-and-a-half games for first in the Western Division.
    “I think rest always goes a long way in this league, so that will help us for sure having a weekend off,” said Corbeil. “Obviously, our schedule is pretty front loaded.
    “These losses always seem to kind of wake us back up, which is nice. I don’t think we’ve lost too many back to back with the exception of maybe last year’s finals. We always usually have a good response, so maybe it will be a kick in the butt that we need.”

Back in the Express with feature on Rush coach

Rush HC and GM Derek Keenan speaks at a rally in 2017.
    I was back in the pages of the Saskatoon Express this week with a feature story on Saskatchewan Rush head coach and general manager Derek Keenan.
    Keenan is the all-time leader in career head coaching victories in the history of the National Lacrosse League, and he is basically the circuit’s Scotty Bowman.
    The bench boss is pretty personable, and the 56-year-old showed his sense of humour when he was asked to reflect on his wins record.
    “I’m old,” said Keenan with a laugh. “I’ve been doing it a long time.”
    Keenan has the Rush leading the entire NLL at the moment with an 11-2 record. Local area fans will be pumped to know the Rush play four of their final five regular season games at home. That final stretch of games begins on Saturday when the Rush host the Rochester Knighthawks (6-7) at 7:30 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre.
    I found my one-on-one interview with Keenan to be real enjoyable, and I came away thinking the Rush were lucky to have him as their head coach and general manager.
    The story on Keenan can be found right here.

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Friday, 23 March 2018

Stars power play too hot for Bears in Game 1

Saskatoon downs Prince Albert 5-3 in SFMAAAHL finals opener

Mackenna Parker, right, hugs a teammate after scoring on the power play.
    The Saskatoon Stars power play was on fire, and that spelled trouble for the Prince Albert Northern Bears.
    On Friday night at the ancient Rutherford Rink, the Stars cashed in on all three of their power play opportunities to down the Bears 5-3 in the opening game of the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League championship series. The best-of-five series shifts to Prince Albert for Game 2 on Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Art Hauser Centre.
    In Friday’s encounter, the Stars final three goals all came on the power play with star centre Grace Shirley scoring twice and star captain Mackenna Parker getting the other goal with the numbers advantage.
    “I feel like just going into it we were kind of all on the same page,” said Shirley about the power-play success. “We were talking in between shifts just like making sure that we all knew what we were doing out there.
    “We just worked hard when we were out there, and things went our way.”
Joelle Fiala had the Stars first goal on Friday.
    Joelle Fiala and Anna Leschychyn both scored for the Stars at even strength to give the host side a 2-0 lead in the first period.
    At the 12:13 mark of the second, defender Ashley Messier fed the puck down low to Shirley at the right side of the Prince Albert goal, and she sniped her first marker past Bears netminder Ryan Fontaine.
    After the Bears cut the Stars lead to 3-2, Shirley struck again on the power play at the 3:50 mark of the third taking a beauty feed from Leschyshyn in the left slot and burying her second goal of the contest to give the Stars a 4-2 lead.
    Shirley said the play of her teammates was the reason she was able to score twice.
    “They were both just really good passes,” said Shirley. “The first one Ashley (Messier) just made a really good pass, and I had time to shoot. It was just kind of a lucky goal that went in there.
    “The second one Anna (Leschyshyn) obviously just like made a really nice pass and found me in the slot. It was just great plays.”
Stars captain Mackenna Parker eludes Bears defender Jordan Ashe.
    The Bears, who enter the series as defending SFMAAAHL champions, always kept battling back ensuring no Stars lead was safe.
    After Shirley netted her first goal to give the Stars a 3-0 lead, Bears star winger Abby Soyko responded with a goal just 1:27 later to cut Saskatoon’s lead to 3-1.
    Before the second period ended, the Bears further trimmed to Stars edge to 3-2, when Jadyn Kushniruk passed the puck across the front of the Saskatoon net from the left wing and linemate Camryn Amundson tapped the puck into an empty right side of the goal.
Abby Soyko had the Bears first goal on Friday.
    When Shirley scored her second power-play marker in the third to give the Stars a 4-2 edge, Bears winger Jasper Desmarais responded just 60 second later to trim the Saskatoon lead to 4-3.
    With 5:41 to play in the third, Leschyshyn found Parker with a backdoor feed, and the Stars captain fired home a power-play goal to round out the scoring in the contest. Shirley also picked up an assist on Parker’s goal for a three-point night.
    “Obviously, they are a good team,” said Shirley. “No matter how much you are up, they are always going to go hard.
    “It is important that we play a whole 60 minutes, because we know they are going to do the same.”
    The Bears got on the power play with 1:54 to play in the third, and they pulled Fontaine with a minute to play to get a six-on-four advantage with the number of skaters on the ice. Prince Albert wasn’t able to find any more offence.
    Jordan Ivanco turned away 24 shots to pick up the win in goal for the Stars. Fontaine turned away 30 shots to take the setback in goal for the Bears.
The Stars celebrate their Game 1 series win.
    The Bears failed to score on their two power-play chances.
    While Prince Albert swept last year’s SFMAAAHL championship series 3-0, the Stars won the league title in 2015 and 2016.
    Saskatoon swept Prince Albert 3-0 in the 2015 SFMAAAHL championship series.
    Shirley was pleased her team could take Game 1 this year and against the Bears.
    “It was a good feeling to get the first one,” said Shirley. “We just have to focus on the next game and just keep playing hard.”
    After Game 2 on Sunday in Prince Albert wraps up, the two teams will play in Game 3 on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Agriplace Arena.

Sophie Shirley named CWHL rookie of the year

    Saskatoon Stars alumna Sophie Shirley took home a big honour at the Canadian Women’s Hockey League’s annual awards show on Friday.
    The skilled 18-year-old centre was named the CWHL’s rookie of the year after a solid campaign with the Calgary Inferno. Shirley recorded eight goals and 11 assists in 26 regular season games to help the Inferno finish third in the seven-team league with a 17-7-1-3 mark, while also finishing third in team scoring.
    The Saskatoon product, who has been part of Canada’s under-18 women’s team and Canada’s national women’s development team, has committed to join the University of Wisconsin Badgers women’s hockey team next season. Sophie is Grace Shirley’s older sister.

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